A vigorous swirl of finely battoned turnip in a generous splash of vinegar, rice is best, and chemistry takes over. The once clear bowl is suddenly vivid purple. Let it rest for a few minutes and then a forkful of this fresh, bright vegetable is irresistible. Taking small bites, you feel energised, fresh and wanting more. For a humble turnip, it’s packed with Unami.
This dish is typically found in Tsuruoka, an hour’s flight north east of Tokyo. Mountainous, remote and fertile the region is home to many heirloom vegetables, wild and cultivated. Native to the area is this purply Atsumi Kabu (turnip), cultivated with a distinctive slash-and-burn method for the past 300 years. (see below)
The chopping, slicing and battoning was done by master Japanese chef and farmer Mitsu Chonan, whoes strong, firm hands holds the bowl. Mitsu who cooks in the family’s Chikeiken restaurant in Tsuruoka city was in Italy to share and learn on a visit organised by the Genuine Education Network (GEN).
Our mini-cooking demonstration followed two days of cooking lunch for students and staff at my college, the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Piedmonte.
Talking to a group of students, Mitsu shared her philosophy about food and worries about her home prefecture suffering from Japan’s ongoing economic crisis and a drift of farmers to the cities seeking work. This skills drain is also taking memories and generations of knowledge about how to work the land for traditional vegetables and crops such as this turnip, she says.
The Chonan’s farm lies in a so-called ‘fruit village’ surrounded by orchards at the foot of the Dewa Sanzan mountain range, a mystical land full of Shinto shines and pilgrim routes.
In common with many of their neighbours, the family are also farmers and serve their harvest in the restaurant, although the menu often contains meats such as fish, chicken and pork.
Back home, Mitsu could be described as a celebrity chef, working hard to preserve the region’s unique culinary heritage. In 2014 Tsuruoka was named Japan’s first UNESCO City of Gastronomy, and through travelling around the area you’ll see free-range geese weeding paddy fields, or gracious grandmothers drying their foraged and home grown vegetables in the warming sun.
The cuisine has been shaped by the Buddhist faith and the monks’ traditional dining style of Shojin Ryori, and its plant-based philosophy centered about soybean-based foods such as tofu paired with seasonal vegetables and wild mountain plants.
Winters are harsh in northern Japan and historically locals lived on fermentation and preservation for the coldest months. “We have almost lost the knowledge to preserve our foods,” says Mitsu. “It’s our responsibility as chefs to pass on this knowledge.” Each Tsuruoka household has their own recipe of which they are very proud, she adds. “This is a place where you can find authenticity. But it’s hard to make a living here. Many farmers have other jobs, and too often farms are abandoned.”
Like many places in the world, Japan is in the grip of a health crisis with diseases such as Type-2 diabetes, obesity and cancer rates soaring. “Because of this,” says Mitsu, “some younger people are returning to the country. They are seeking a feeling of contentment and happiness and a lifestyle that doesn’t require the money living in a city does.”
LUNCH AT TAVOLE ACCEMDEMICHE
Full disclosure … sadly, I was too late to book a place at one of Mitsu’s lunches at Tavole Accademiche, the UNISG refectory, but photos on Instagram and reports from friends suggest it was a great menu and next time I should be quicker off the mark! But, anyway, here is the menu she served with help from the amazing brigade of chefs at Tavole Accademiche led by Martin …
Menu 1: Ichiju Sansai includes miso soup with seasonal vegetables and Fu bread (that contains gluten), Japanese rice, small tastings of marinated eggplant with chicken and mushrooms, Imogara (stewed dried Taro), Koyadofu (dried Tofu) and pickled Daikon.
Menu 2: Miso soup with seasonal vegetables, Koyadofu (dried Tofu) and Japanese rice.
Dessert: Sweet red bean soup with Mochi (sweet done with rice flour).
The broth for the Miso soup contained Katsuobushi (dried
Bonito fish) in the Menu 1, while in the Menu 2 the broth was made with Kombu
Slash and burn farming is known as yakihata (literally, “burning down the field”) agriculture in Japanese. Turnips grown through yakihata are called yakihata turnips. The Yakihata turnip is well known as one of the “indigenous crops” that have been carefully preserved by farmers since the Edo Period (1603-1868) in limited areas around Tsuruoka city; and there are various kinds of yakihata turnips by region. For traditional yakihata agriculture, cedar branches cut from the trees and dropped on the slope are used. The branches are arranged properly before a fire is set so as to catch fire easily. Then, the fire is set evenly on the surface of the slope to burn down the scrub and wild herbs and to plant turnip seeds. After several years of crop farming, although the duration may differ from farmer to farmer, new cedar trees are planted on the field. (Source: Tsuruokagastronomy.com)